Photograpy, India, Portraits, Anglo Indians, Family and me

Category: The people of India

People of India exhibition The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum Coventry

People of India exhibition1LRFinally after all of this time and hard work by so many people my exhibition is up at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. I’d love to say it was all my work but that would not be true. Thank you Pete James Curator of photographs at The Library of Birmingham and to the team at the Hebert with a huge thanks to Curator Rosie Addenbrooke.

Poeple of India exhibition 2014LR

Not The End!



The Aghoree,

Aghorpunts, or Aghorees, are a class of people who frequent the ghats at Benares, though they are occasionally to be found in other parts if India, and have been met with even in Assam. They are Ogres (indeed, the similitude of the word to Aghoree is noticeable), and affect a practical philosophy, which disbelieves in the existence of any difference between things, and asserts that all distinctions depend on the imagination. A cuff or a kick is immaterial to them as a blessing. They go about in  puris naturalibus, with a fresh human skull in their hands (off which they had previously eaten the putrid flesh. And afterwards scraped out the brain and eyes with their fingers), into which is poured whatsoever is given them to drink. They pretend to be indifferent whether it be ardent spirits or milk or foul water. For they take the first thing which offers, whether it be a putrid corpse, cooked food or ordure. With matted hair, blood-red eyes, and body covered with filth and vermin, the Aghoree is an oject of terror and discust. He looks like a wolf, ready to destroy and then devour his prey, rather than a human being.

Hindoos, however, look on these wretches with veneration, and none dare to drive them from their doors. They are among the worst of the many turbulent and troublesome inhabitants of Benaris, and there is scarcely a crime or enormity which has not, on apparently good grounds, been laid to their charge.

One of the ancient Hindoo dramatists, Bhava Bhutt, who flourished in the eighth century, in his drama of  Malati and Mahdava, has made powerful use of the “Aghorees” in a scene in the Temple of Chamunda, where the heroine of the play is decoyed in order to be sacrificed to the dread goddess Chamunda or Kali. The disciple of “Aghoree Ghanti,” the high priest who is to perform the horrible rite, by name “Kapala Kunda,” is interrupted in his invocation to Chamunda by the hero Mahdava, who thus describes the scene:-

Passage from, The People of India volumes 1868-75, Birmingham Central library.

Passage taken from Malati and Mahdava a drama written in the eigth century by Bhava Bhutt.

Now wake the terrors of the place, beset

With crowding and malignant fiends. The flames

From funeral pyres scarce lend their sullen light,

Clogged with their fleshy prey, to dissipate

The fearful gloom that hems them round.

Well, be it so. I seek, and must address them.


How the noise…………………………………

High, shrill, and indistinct, of chattering sprites,

Communicative fills the charnel ground:

Strange forms like foxes flit along the sky.

From the red hair of their lank bodies darts

The meteor blaze: Or from their mouths that stretch

From ear to ear thickest with numerous fangs,

Or eyes, or beards, or brows, the radiance streams.

And now I see the goblin host: each stalks

On legs like palm-trees: a gaunt skeleton,

Whose fleshless bones are bound by starting sinews,

And scantly cased in black and shrivelled skin,

Like tall and withered trees by lightning scathed,

They move, and as amidst their sapless trunks

The mighty serpent curls-so each mouth

Wide yawning, lolls the vast blood-dripping tongue.

They mark my coming, and the half-chewed morsel

Falls to the howling wolf-and now they fly. 

Extract taken from The people of India volumes 1868-75 Birmingham central library


The People of India

The preface

During the administration of Lord Canning, from 1856 to 1863, the interest which had been created in Europe by the remarkable development of the photographic Art, communicated itself to India, and originated the desire to turn it to account in the illustration of topography, architecture, and ethnology of that country.

There were none, perhaps, in whom this interest was awakened more strongly than in Lord and lady canning. It was their wish to carry home with them, at the end of their sojourn in India, a collection, obtained by private means, of photographic illustrations, which might recall to their memory the peculiarities of Indian life.

The great convulsion of 1857-58, while it necessarily retarded for a time all scientific and artistic operations, imparted a new interest to the country which had been the scene of, and to the people who had been the actors in these remarkable events. When, therefore, the pacification of India had been accomplished, the officers of the Indian services, who had made themselves acquainted with the principles and practice of photography, encouraged and patronized by the Governor-General, went forth, and traversed the land in search of interesting subjects. 

In this way the design soon exceeded the dimensions of a mere private collection; but Lord Canning felt that its importance was sufficient to warrant official sanction and development, and, therefore, placed the matter in the hands of Mr. Clive Bayley, his home secretary. Some or the more important results appear in the present work.

The photographs were produced without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances, by different officers; and copies of each plate were sent home to the secretary of state for India council.

After a time, it appeared that a sufficient number of illustrations had been received from various parts of India, fairly to represent the different varieties of the Indian races. The negatives remained in India; but from the plates sent home it was easy to produce fresh negatives, the prints of which might bee multiplied to any extent. The secretary of state in council sanctioned this operation, and the work was executed by Mr. W. Griggs, at the India museum, under the superintendence of Dr. Forbes Watson.

In many cases some descriptive account of the tribes represented accompanied the photographs sent from India. These varied greatly in amplitude and value. But on the whole it may be said that they were sufficient to constitute the basis of the sketches contributed by Mr. John R. Melville, Colonel Meadows Taylor, Mr Kaye, Dr Forbes Watson, and others. These sketches do not profess to be more than mere rough notes, suggestive rather than exhaustive, and they make no claim to aspire to scientific eminence, it is hoped that, in a ethnological point of view, it will not be without interest and value.

Extract taken from The people of India volumes at Birmingham Central Library.





Damaging history

Since I first discovered the People of India volumes in 2005 I have now spent hour upon hour in the archives of Birmingham library. I have slowly turned the pages of these books as I searched for places and faces that I recognise. No matter how carefully I have tried not to spoil these precious artefacts, every time I have turned a page a creek or a crack of the dried gum binding that runs down the spine of each book reminds me that as an archaeologist searches for evidence of the past he also destroys much of the present.


As I lift the books to put them back on the shelf dust remains on the table.


Jason Tilley

The People of India

During the year of 2005 and after an initial meeting with Pete James at Birmingham Central Library I was introduced to original copies of ‘The people of India’ that are held at the library. This mammoth publication, eight volumes in total, was brought together by John William Kaye and John Forbes Watson between 1868 and 1875, few complete sets of this extrodianry document exist today.

The books are full of pasted on albumen prints, 486 in total. These photographs would have been reproduced by contact printing from copy negatives. After the books conception every stage of production would have been a monumental achievement for the photographers, the writers, printers and editors.

The Victorian tone and derogitory text that accompany the beautiful photographs cause discomfort to many in the west these days but they are also a document of there time, recording for  us and reminding us of British views of dominance and superiority. The words and the reasons for publication aside the stunning images will always remain  a staggering photographic record that documented the diversity of the people who inhabited India for the centuries before colonisation.

Jason Tilley